Gethin Chamberlain for The Scotsman, 24 April 2004
THE true scale of British casualties in Iraq is revealed today after the Ministry of Defence confirmed that more than 2,200 injured British military personnel have been flown home from the Gulf since the start of the campaign.
With the security situation in Iraq deteriorating, The Scotsman has learned that British forces are suffering about 50 combat injuries every month, and attacks on troops are taking place daily. Soldiers serving in Iraq say they have been told they cannot all expect to return home alive.
And the extent to which Britain is now prepared to accept casualties is revealed by a secret plan which was drawn up by British commanders two weeks ago for a major offensive against the town of Nasiriyah amid fears that Italian and South Korean forces were losing control to supporters of the rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
One estimate from military sources in Iraq suggested that the attack, which would have involved house-to-house fighting by light infantry troops without the support of armoured units or artillery, could have cost the lives of as many as 100 British soldiers and have left another 200 wounded.
The intended force included units drawn from the Royal Scots, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales. An additional field surgery team was flown into Iraq to deal with the expected casualties.
The operation was eventually called off after the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi, intervened to order the Italian commander to commit his forces to restore order in the town.
The revelations came as the government said it was considering sending more troops to Iraq to replace Spanish forces, which are being withdrawn from around the city of Najaf by their government.
In a further reflection of the worsening security situation, the BBC confirmed that it had withdrawn all but two of its staff from Iraq and banned any more trips to the country until further notice.
This week 74 people, including 16 children, died in suicide bombings in Basra. Last night, five Iraqis believed linked to al-Qaeda were arrested for the attacks.
The men led police to a stash of 20 tons of explosives, an Iraqi police intelligence chief said.
The existence of the Nasiriyah plan was confirmed yesterday by Major Gene Maxwell of the Royal Scots. He said: “There were contingency plans put in place for this. One contingency plan was to go up to support the Italians. But in the end they coped and didn’t need our help.”
Since February last year a total of 2,228 injured British personnel have been flown home for treatment, a figure equivalent to three battalions. To put the figure in context, the entire Black Watch battle group in Iraq during the war amounted to 1,100 soldiers. About 60,000 British military personnel have served in Iraq during Operation Telic, with the death toll currently standing at 59.
But despite the mounting casualties, British forces are under pressure from US commanders to take on tough new roles.
Yesterday, the MoD said Britain was talking to other coalition partners about what to do in Najaf. “Najaf has been kept under review in light of recent events but no decisions have been taken on that,” a spokesman said.
Concerns about Nasiriyah began to mount after the arrest of one of Sadr’s key aides and the closure of his newspaper sparked violent protests across Iraq.
Coalition commanders decided that British troops may have to be used to restore order in Nasiriyah after it became clear that the Italian and South Korean forces were losing control. In one incident, about 80 militia armed with a small tank succeeded in hijacking a train.
Coalition commanders feared that if Sadr’s militia were allowed to take full control of the town, it would require a full assault on the scale of the US operation against Fallujah. British commanders were told to put together an ad hoc force of about 1,000 men.
One officer estimated that the losses in such an operation would be expected to run at about 30 per cent, with fatalities expected to account for one in three of those casualties.
But the operation was called off after Mr Berlusconi flew to Nasiriyah on a surprise visit on 10 April.